Paul Mehling, the leader of Hot Club San Francisco, and the man dubbed the godfather of American gypsy jazz, discovered the music of Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in grammar school. Decades later the music that took root in his young soul finally bore fruit.
“I was born in Denver and grew up in what is now Silicon Valley, when it was all fruit trees,” Mehling recalls. “My father was a record collector. I grew up with the music of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller and all the swing era bands. He’d come home and turn on the stereo and, at a year old, I’d sit in front of the speakers and soak up the music. To this day, I get a sense of déjà vu whenever I hear a song I heard back then. When I was older, I became a discipline problem because I wanted to stay up all night and listen to records. Being exposed to swing at and early age predisposed me to playing this kind of music.
“I had an older sister who turned me onto rock’n’roll. When I was six, we saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and it was like getting hit by lightning. I said, ‘I wanna do that - make the girls scream and give people the buzz I get from hearing the music.’ The Beatles made music guitar-centric and I picked up the guitar. I tried playing in rock bands, but it didn’t work for me. The music wasn’t satisfying. I liked the acoustic guitar better and learned classical music, but that wasn’t what I wanted either. Then I heard Django: three guitars, bass, and violin and they sounded and acted like a rock band. I saw pictures of them and they looked sharp, sophisticated and mysterious.
“When I was a teenager, I saw Dan Hicks & his Hot Licks and he was playing a contemporary blend of The Beatles and Django. I went to see them a lot and listened to their combination of rhythm guitar with jazz violin and tried to figure out how it worked.” Around the same time, Mehling discovered folk and bluegrass. He taught himself violin and mandolin after hearing David Grisman’s Dawg Music, a blend of swing and bluegrass that became known as ‘newgrass.’
After graduating from high school in Santa Cruz, Mehling landed his first gig as a professional musician playing rhythm guitar and banjo with Jake Stock and the Abalone Stompers, a New Orleans style traditional Dixieland jazz band. He played the happy hour at The Catalyst (the premier Santa Cruz live music venue) with the Stompers every Friday evening for the next 15 years. He freelanced with The Santa Cruz Symphony on viola and played in jazz and swing combos, including The Magnolia Jazz Band and The Hot Club of Friends, his first gypsy jazz group.
In 1981, Mehling took a break from the Abalone Stompers to bicycle across Europe with his girlfriend. In Holland, he saw a live performance by Waso, a band from Belgium that played gypsy jazz. “Fapy Lafertin was the lead guitarist and he was playing Django solos note for note, then he’d take off and start improvising.” Mehling says. “It was galvanizing. I didn’t think anyone could really play Django’s style and I realized it’s no secret. You just have to know how to do it. I decided I’d have to come back to Europe and learn to play gypsy guitar.”
Two years later, Mehling was in Paris playing violin in Metro stations all day and looking for gypsy musicians all night. He had a cheap apartment and made enough playing to support himself. “Then I got lucky. I met Serge Krief, a Django style guitarist. He was very warm; especially when he found out I could play guitar and violin. We played jazz in the Metro together, him on guitar, me on violin, and I watched his fingers like a hawk. When we counted the money out at the end of the afternoon, he’d insist I take my share. ‘You’re my brother, but you’re not my brother if you don’t take your share of the money.’ I knew I could learn to play they way he played, so I made a bunch of cassettes. I’d take apart his solos and figure out what he was doing. I should have done that with Django, but it was too vast and daunting when I was young.” Krief also imparted an important piece of advice. “He told me gypsy music is full of emotion and that’s an important part of the music. It’s hot, mysterious, emotional and romantic. That stayed with me.”
Mehling returned to Santa Cruz and the Abalone Stompers, but he was getting restless. In 1985, he heard Dan Hicks was looking for a lead guitarist for his new band, The Acoustic Warriors. Mehling got the job and stayed with the band until 1990. “After the Loma Prieta earthquake, I finally decided it was time to make the leap. I moved to San Francisco and auditioned people for months, but nobody knew how to play this music. Finally, I started training people how to play gypsy style jazz.”
The band’s first album was produced by Mehling and put out on the band’s own label. Since then, they’ve put out nine more fine albums of gypsy flavored jazz including Lady in Red, a set for Clarity in 1999, featuring Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks and San Francisco jazz singing legend Barbara Dane, Swing This (2003 Panda Digital) and Postcards from Gypsyland (2005 Lost Wax) which includes tangos, waltzes and sparkling Mehling originals. In 2000, The Hot Club of San Francisco was the first American band invited to play the Festival de Jazz Django Reinhardt in Samois-Sur-Seine, ground zero for the current Django revival. The current edition of the HCSF has been together for five years, anchored by Mehling and the improvisational brilliance of violinist Evan Price.
Critics have noted that the music of Mehling and the HCSF owes as much to 52nd street as gypsy jazz, a characterization Mehling doesn’t dispute. “We have a swing or die approach to the music that’s distinctly American. We’re trying to challenge the tendency to slavishly imitate Django’s style, without watering down the gypsy tradition or diluting the music. We bring out the visceral element of the music that Serge told me is so important. When I talk with gypsy musicians, they say that they love what we do because they can tell we love the music. If people dig our music, when gypsy bands come to America, there will be an audience waiting to hear them.”